People have been telling me to go to Lisbon for 20 years. And for 20 years I have ignored them, instead choosing to visit Europe’s more celebrated capitals. That was a mistake. I knew it the second I sat down at a café terrace in the chic Chiado shopping district on my first day in town. The sidewalks around me were decorated in calçada portuguesa, black basalt and white limestone tiles set into fanciful floral designs that kept my eye entertained as I sipped a bica, an excellent café espresso with just the right amount of froth.
Of course I had heard of the city’s famous calçadas portuguesas, and also of its azulejos — the colorful glazed tiles that decorate the exterior walls of so many of its buildings — but hearing about something wonderful and seeing it firsthand is an altogether different experience.
I was struck by the sheer artistry of the calçadas portuguesas, and also by the apparent eccentricity of military engineer Eusébiuo Furtado, who invented the style in 1842 when he ordered inmates to decorate the courtyard of their prison with the black-and-white tiles. His idea took off and thrived, and soon most of Lisbon’s hilly streets and squares were covered in whimsical mosaic patterns. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the tiles, however, is that they are still intact. So many other capital cities around the globe would have destroyed them in the name of modernity or cost savings, but not Lisbon. Instead, the city has chosen to preserve its ornate sidewalks — despite the steep terrain and the fact that the tiles are very slippery when wet.
The calçadas portuguesas are reason alone to visit Lisbon, but there are so many other sound motives — art, history, gastronomy and hospitality, to name a few. Although the Portuguese capital doesn’t have the mega-museums of London, Madrid or Paris, it does have a host of smaller, quirkier museums that showcase unique and stunning collections that you just won’t find anywhere else. Three of them, the National Museum of Ancient Art, the Gulbenkian Museum and the Tile Museum, are unsung gems that deserve much more international attention than they receive. The Museum of Ancient Art takes the visitor through seven centuries of Portuguese art and exploration; the Gulbenkian displays the magnificent private collection of Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian; and the Tile Museum houses glorious azulejos dating back to the 1400s. All three museums are inexpensive and rarely crowded, which adds to their appeal.
But if you don’t want to waste glorious weather by staying indoors, the city itself is a museum — and in the best possible way. On a clear-sky day, nothing beats a hike up the winding streets of the historic Alfama district to Castelo de São Jorge, the hilltop citadel that dates from the sixth century and lords over the city, or a ride up the rickety Elevador de Santa Justa, which was built between 1898 and 1901 by Raoul de Mesnier du Ponsard, an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel. The top-heavy, 147-foot contraption looks like something Edward Gorey would have drawn; riding up its handsome, wood-paneled elevator car, I found myself fearing that the aging iron structure might come tumbling down.
But once I reached the skytop platform, the views of the river, the hills and the city’s red-tiled rooftops were so incredible that I was able to face down my anxiety and even peer over the rusty edge to the handsomely tiled street below.
The Elevador de Santa Justa is an old-fashioned thrill, and so are the city’s famous streetcars. One would have to be a jaded and grumpy traveler not to enjoy a ride on one of the bright-yellow vintage trolleys. Even the streetcar lines that are crowded with tourists are worth exploring, for as they snake through labyrinthine neighborhoods, just barely squeaking past tiny shops and launderettes, the rider gets a glimpse of the life of the average Lisboner. Taking a trolley away from the city center is even more rewarding; suddenly, the riders are all locals, most female and well past the age of 70. The senhoras hop on board with their grocery bags, exchange neighborhood chitchat and alight a couple of blocks later in front of their homes. It’s the perfect fly-on-the-wall experience.
Another very local experience is a pilgrimage to Santa Maria de Bélem, the parish suburb just outside the city. Here, the city’s schoolchildren, retirees and international travelers gather to admire the 16th-century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, built by King Manuel I to give thanks for Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to India. After exploring the monastery, everyone congregates again at Antiga Confeitaria de Bélem, the 175-year-old pastry shop whose specialty, the pastel de nata, has become the national treat of Portugal.
The only problem I had with this pastry is that it is addictive; after my first bite of one of the little tarts, with its flaky exterior and custard interior infused with hints of lemon, cinnamon and vanilla, I wanted only more. My new habit was hard to kick, because everywhere I went, there they were: in humble cafés, chic pastry shops — even my wonderful hotel, As Janelas Verdes, offered them warm each morning. Although no establishment could reach the heights of the original pastéis de Bélem, my hotel came close.
Which brings me to another unsung Lisbon treasure: its gastronomy. Portuguese cuisine is not widely celebrated, perhaps because it is neither haute nor avant-garde. But it is delicious, made from the freshest ingredients and well seasoned and spiced. The country’s wine list is equally impressive — most people know about the Minho region’s vinho verde, but there are so many other varieties of Portuguese wine, and many of the wines I tasted rivaled the best vintages of France. A typical night out in Lisbon left me in a state of gastronomic bliss, without the heavy feeling of having eaten or spent too much.
The people, too, are the perfect hosts. They offer superior sights, food, wine and accommodation, but without pretention. My hotel was a great example of this; located in the former manor home of Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós, As Janelas Verdes is now part of the Heritage Lisbon Hotels group, a locally-owned firm that specializes in historic boutique properties. Each of the five Heritage properties features a unique architecture and design; a guest library stocked with books in several languages; 24-hour complimentary coffee, tea, computer terminals and wifi; and abundant breakfasts that include local specialties. The welcome at As Janelas Verdes was warm and helpful, which reflected my experiences all around Lisbon.
Quite simply, the city has everything that is great about European cities, without the crowds, the high prices and the attitude of some of the other capitals. I only wish that it hadn’t taken me 20 years to realize it.
*Article first published by Aïshti magazine.